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The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist…

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast… (2009)

by Professor James C. Scott

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So. I've always been an anarchist in principle (didn't Merlin say in The Once and Future King, every decent person is?) and I come to this, not with a special interest in upland SE Asia, but after this on hunter-gatherers: 'Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior' and after this on pastoral nomads: 'Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, And The State', and after a brave foray into the classic Pierre Clastres too. Wherein I've learnt statelessness is common, and clung to stubbornly, which gives me hope for the species.

This one is about defections from civilization, that are much more common than our ‘civilizational discourse’ has allowed us to see. As such, its relevance is far wider than SE Asia. He draws in others' work from other areas, ethnographers' examinations of cultures wherever they have found these political strategies. At the close he says: “I have come to see this study of Zomia, or the massif, not so much as a study of hill peoples per se but as a fragment of what might properly be considered a global history of populations trying to avoid, or having been extruded by, the state.” My own area of study is steppe history, for which I have found this of the most fantastic use. I'll declare it a need-to-read, in another geography altogether.

It covers far too much to try to sum up. I found the most thought-provoking chapters to be the three last. Though in fact he calls one of them chapter 6 ½, because he's just feeling his way: it's on 'Orality, Writing and Texts', and talks about possible attitudes to writing that go dead against civilized assumptions. Might a people reject writing, the orthodoxy of a text, that is a foundation-stone of states, and feel they are better off with oral history? That was fascinating, and the next chapter is 'Ethnogenesis: A Radical Constructionist Case' on the artificiality or fictionality of tribes. He comes at this from two sides. Administrators have to order populations into tribes that weren't there beforehand; but the peoples themselves have uses for a fictional ethnicity – several uses that Scott explores. This chapter includes the why of state mimicry, or what he calls 'cosmological bluster' – where tribal peoples take on the trappings of states, in ways that may be more subversive than subservient. Lastly, 'Prophets of Renewal', on the question of how and why (and what type of) religion has served in revolts of the marginal and the dispossessed. This is a terrific chapter, that does begin on explanations, and those might not be what you thought.

In the end, even though my eye was caught by that title, I wonder whether we have to call this an anarchist history? It’s a history – a neglected history, one we have been blind to, exciting to discover. ( )
  Jakujin | Apr 28, 2013 |
This is one amazing book. The early chapters cover a lot of cool background information, the notes of which eventually became part of my Green Eggs and Ham review, so I won't dwell on that stuff so much. Author James C. Scott takes the very long view of history, and breaks it up into four eras: (1) the stateless era; (2) the era of miniature states surrounded by vast unruled areas; (3) the period of expanding states and shrinking peripheries; and (4) the era where the entire world is administrated space. Modern globes showing political boundaries would have you believe that we are living in that fourth era, but actually we are still in the third era. That’s right; there are regions and peoples even today who are living essentially stateless lives. Perhaps you’ve heard of the "Golden Triangle" which occupies the northern portion of Thailand, parts of Burma and Laos?

It comes up occasionally in movies about the drug trade. A lot of opium is grown there, despite state prohibitions* because it is a mountainous region, undeveloped, and out of practical reach of the law. It turns out that the "Golden Triangle" is just part of a much, much larger area which academics refer to as "Zomia", which you won’t find on most maps, but which spills over to occupy areas of Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, China, Bangladesh, Nepal and even into Afghanistan.

The region is far from homogeneous, but what it has in common throughout is a very rough, mountainous terrain which has proven remarkably resistant to penetration and conquest by large states. For most of the past 1500 years, the assorted inhabitants of Zomia have lived a traditional lifestyle out of reach of the great colonial forces which sought to subjugate them. Most of the book focuses on the factors which have made this impressive feat possible... factors which, in one way or another, have made rule of Zomia simply not worthwhile: rugged landscape with steep inclines which make overland travel and construction of roads (and railroads) prohibitively expensive; low population density (i.e. small tax base, small prospects for trade and production of goods, small population for military conscription and/or corvee labor); and no resources of sufficient value/amount to justify the expense of occupying the land.

Because the population is so sparse in these hills, the "hill tribes" (as they are usually called) can survive by foraging, hunting, keeping small numbers of domestic animals, and by tending to small semi-wild gardens. They don’t need to practice any organized, large-scale agriculture to feed themselves, and that makes all the difference in the world. Seriously, the importance of this cannot be overstated.

Agriculture necessitates dividing the land up into manageable parcels to be worked by designated groups, necessitating ownership. It also demands that the population remain geographically fixed, and that they live in sufficient density for all the necessary manpower to easily access the land they work each day. Once the population is fixed and dense, they are ripe for administration and taxation. The fruits of their labor can be stored, but that also means they can be seized. The development of early empires literally centered on the characteristics of the local agriculture. Whereas different edible foods grow side by side in the wild, most state structures have imposed rigid controls separating different crops into homogeneous fields of single individual products. Why? Because that is the easiest way to administrate an agricultural economy. Yield-per-land can be calculated out to a fine degree, and used to calculate the tax base.

Rice paddies

Scott deftly shows how this "monocropping" is really contrary to the overall interests of society, and is really only a tool of the state. Monocropping increases the density of plant-specific diseases and pests, it depletes the soil of key nutrients, and it promotes soil erosion. In a similar vein, the high population density of agricultural areas is bad for the human population too; it promotes both the spread and genesis of disease (especially before good sanitation was developed), and increases many societal ills which are far less problematic among the sparsely populated nonagricultural peoples: principally war, crime and slavery.

Agriculture requires a lot of manual labor, so it not only encourages large families, but also the enslavement of captured populations. Not so for nonagricultural types. Think about it: a slave is of fairly limited use to a hunter-gatherer, who eats food off the vine as he needs it, who doesn’t have a house to care for, or a lot of material goods to limit his mobility. All the diverse cultures of Zomia seem to have in common a freedom from slavery, widespread civil unrest, or large-scale war.

Am I painting too utopian a picture of pastoral life? Scott admits the advantages of agriculture and fixed population centers: surpluses which provide a buffer from drought; a pyramidal societal structure which creates a leisure class to produce more sophisticated arts, and who can exchange ideas- spreading innovations and refining techniques and technologies. Written language and formal education (for some) is also very much a product of the fixed-population agricultural way of life. Without a doubt, GoodReads is not big in Zomia.

Overall, Scott is even-handed in his appraisal of the Zomian way of life, as compared to the "lowlanders". It isn't really a competition between peoples, but between lifestyles: hill and valley. As such there is a good deal of fluidity between the two, as people variously elect for one or the other, depending on shifting circumstances. Throughout history, lowlanders fed up with taxes, war, disease and tyrannical rule have escaped to the hills and joined Zomian tribes. Likewise, there have been times where periods of peace, prosperity and acceptably fair government in the valleys have attracted hill people to abandon the highland life and take up farming below. Less commonly, plant and animal diseases in the hills, or even the infrequent intertribal strife has driven highlanders down low.

The fluidity between the hill and valley people has at times resulted in some interesting historical quirks. Traditions, stories, and other cultural elements lost in war in the lowlands have been preserved by the highlands and reintroduced during subsequent peace. Trade between the two peoples has spread aethetics, and technologies. More importantly to those who would rule the valleys: the hill country has always been an alternative lifestyle available to subjects of agricultural regimes. It has been a place where outlaws and slaves, people with debts, and religious apostates could escape to. When invading powers threatened, it has at times been a struggle to get subjects to stand and fight, rather than to flee to the hills.

At times, lowland political structures have also tried to keep hill influence out. Malaysian Islamic rulers have regarded the hills as an unwanted reservoir of Hindu influence. Modern day rulers of the atheist Chinese state have scoffed at the hills as a continued source of unwanted religion. British colonial rulers in Burma continually complained about "uncivilized" Wa and Hmong hill tribes, who would raid rural colonial farmers bringing goods to market, and who contributed nothing to taxes or defense of the realm.

The whole idea of "civilized" vs. "uncivilized" is of course a self-serving construct of the agrarian rulers, who had a vested interest in convincing their populations that the relatively freer and generally healthier (at least until the modern era) hill people were something less refined, less fashionable, and less desirable than the taxed, enslaved, and conscripted tenant farmers of the valley. All the connotations of the "barbarian" label are deconstructed here in a very satisfying way, and naturally religion plays a role here. It has been a big part of the "civilization" of the valley. Large-scale religions thrive in the low country, because they support other aims of the sedentary agricultural state: Large-scale orderly services necessitate construction of temples and participation in mass services- helping keep the population sedentary. Agro-state religions all require proficiency (at least by some) in the same writing systems which support complex legal systems which define land ownership and taxation. Religions which proselytize support state expansion, which is the primary means for the state to acquire farmland and the slave labor to work it.

In contrast, most of the hill cultures practice fairly fluid (i.e. unwritten) and unorganized (i.e. not requiring a large community services or temples) religions, which tend to be a mix of animism, ancestor worship, and regionally idiosyncratic folkloric beliefs.

While we're still on the topic of "civilized" and "uncivilized": I was particularly interested at how consistently different agricultural/political establishments always targeted the foods of the upcountry as "uncivilized". One particular variety of yams has thrived in Southeast Asian hill country since its introduction by Dutch traders in the 1500s. Everything about this yam seems to defy state control: once ripe, it can sit in the ground for up to two years before being consumed. Thus, locals don’t need to maintain a central granary which would be vulnerable to seizure; they simply need to know where to dig, whenever they need a meal. This makes it hard to tax, as well, since a tax assessor can't just look out at a field and estimate its value (as can be done with rice or wheat); he'd have to know where to dig. This yam also grows deep enough in the ground that it is relatively resistant to surface fires. This is significant, because one strategy large states have used to try to drive hill people down into the valleys has been the burning of hill forests. Finally, the yam has a very high calorie-yield to calories-invested ratio. That is to say that hill people get a lot of nutrition out of very little energy expended to cultivate and/or collect these yams. It is, in fact, a considerably better yield than the rice grown in the valleys. (But the rice is more amenable to state administration and control, so continues to be the crop of preference in the lowlands.)

I’m drawing this out again, as usual, but before I go, I just want to touch on what a rich, complex world Zomia is. The cultural diversity is amazing- as one might expect an area nearly as large as Europe (!), filled with seminomadic peoples mixing with each other as well as with diverse adjacent valley cultures. It is interesting to note that a vertical stratification of cultures also exists, as different foodstuffs are available at different altitudes, and different local topography can support varying levels of population density. In fact, even within the hill cultures, there are lower and higher altitude cultures, which themselves are a microscale recreation of the patterns described above: lower altitude hill cultures are denser, relatively more geographically fixed, and more prone to some minimal degree of agriculture or "wild gardening", whereas the higher altitudes see less of all these characteristics.

Terraced hill-agriculture has been one strategy lowland valley states have used to try to drive hill people from their habitat. Overall the labor required makes it very economically impractical, however regimes with adequate resources (e.g. China) have persevered, just as a political strategy to eradicate the "option" of hill life for their subjects in the valleys.

If I have a criticism about the book, it is just that it never addresses one niggling question I have about the hill people: if they don't have any basic government, how do they resolve conflicts amongst themselves, apportion scarce resources, or deal with outsiders in an organized way (i.e. without a leader, how can group agreements be made?) Obviously, these aren't insurmountable problems. I'm guessing family, social and religious structures go a long way, and with the low-density of population, crime and conflict aren't as pervasive as they are in agricultural communities. Still, I would have liked Scott to cover this in more detail.

On the other hand, one praise I have for the book is how it frequently generalizes the lessons of Zomia, and shows other instances around the world where similar phenomena have occured. Arabs have had a similar co-existance with the Berbers as lowlanders do with Zomians. The Roman Empire used the term "Barbarian" effectively to socially isolate the conquered Gauls from the unconquered Germanic tribes. Maroon peoples in the Caribbean have fled to the uplands, as a strategy to evade colonial rule at times. I love when examples from around the globe can be used to illustrate these fundamental principles at work. Good stuff.

The conclusions are, as you might have guessed, a bit sad. In this modern era, the intact hill cultures are being overrun, and sadly we are on our way to that prophesied "fourth era", when all the world will be parceled, administrated and ruled as the valleys have for so long. When I read a book like this, it is mostly out of interest, but in the back of my mind, I always wonder whether there is some practical tidbit in it for me… some "take home message" I can tuck away for possible future use. It’s hard to draw a personal lesson from stuff like this- I’m so very dependent on the local market for my food, but if the shit ever hit the fan- if war, disease or zombie apocalypse ever made this sedentary agricultural-political system intolerable, I guess I would consider the wisdom of the old apocryphal advice and "head for the hills!"


NOTE: Okay, now that I've finished this sucker, somebody please tell me you're interested in reading and reviewing it! I love this book, and I want to read more reviews of it!

* ...and our CIA deals it, also against state prohibitions. ( )
  BirdBrian | Apr 3, 2013 |
An examination of the upland region of southeast Asia (which Scott calls "Zomia"), seen as the world's largest Maroon region. Scott defines the region as one which has resisted governance and explains why the various cultures which inhabit the region have developed particular characteristics designed to resist state control. This is a fascinating, and important contribution to what should, perhaps, be called, "Maroon studies". ( )
  Fledgist | Dec 22, 2009 |
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Scott has found a creative way to revive the tradition of critical thinking about the savage—and to highlight the social goals of equality and autonomy embodied in the Zomian social order that states routinely fall short of realizing.
added by Shortride | editBookforum, Joel Robbins (Dec 1, 2009)
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Zomia is a new name for virtually all the lands at altitudes above roughly three hundred meters all the way from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India and traversing five Southeast Asian nations (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Burma) and four provinces of China (Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and parts of Sichuan). (Preface)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0300152280, Hardcover)

For two thousand years the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects of the organized state societies that surround them—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. This book, essentially an “anarchist history,” is the first-ever examination of the huge literature on state-making whose author evaluates why people would deliberately and reactively remain stateless. Among the strategies employed by the people of Zomia to remain stateless are physical dispersion in rugged terrain; agricultural practices that enhance mobility; pliable ethnic identities; devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders; and maintenance of a largely oral culture that allows them to reinvent their histories and genealogies as they move between and around states.

In accessible language, James Scott, recognized worldwide as an eminent authority in Southeast Asian, peasant, and agrarian studies, tells the story of the peoples of Zomia and their unlikely odyssey in search of self-determination. He redefines our views on Asian politics, history, demographics, and even our fundamental ideas about what constitutes civilization, and challenges us with a radically different approach to history that presents events from the perspective of stateless peoples and redefines state-making as a form of “internal colonialism.” This new perspective requires a radical reevaluation of the civilizational narratives of the lowland states. Scott’s work on Zomia represents a new way to think of area studies that will be applicable to other runaway, fugitive, and marooned communities, be they Gypsies, Cossacks, tribes fleeing slave raiders, Marsh Arabs, or San-Bushmen.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:43 -0400)

For two thousand years the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects of the organized state societies that surround them - slavery, conscription, taxes, corvee labor, epidemics, and warfare. This book, essentially an 'anarchist history', is the first-ever examination of the huge literature on state-making whose author evaluates why people would deliberately and reactively remain stateless. Among the strategies employed by the people of Zomia to remain stateless are physical dispersion in rugged terrain; agricultural practices that enhance mobility; pliable ethnic identities; devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders; and maintenance of a largely oral culture that allows them to reinvent their histories and genealogies as they move between and around states.… (more)

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Yale University Press

Two editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300152280, 0300169175

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